Tuesday, May 3, 2011 at 06:47AM
National Book Foundation


By Terrance Hayes

Original and Current Publisher: Penguin Books        

Katie Peterson writes: 

It’s hard to know where to start talking about Terrance Hayes’ 2010 National Book Award-winning collection Lighthead because there’s just so much in it. Love poems sit next to poems about African American history: in fact, they sit inside poems about African American history. Poems about music accompany family narratives—or rather talking about music makes it possible for the poet to talk through family narratives. In many of these lyrics, the poem you think you’re reading becomes another poem. If you try to pull one strand, you get the whole tangle. The title is suggestively brainy (there’s a “light” in Hayes’ “head”) and sexual (you do the math). The book is also full of hints: let’s get heavy on Lighthead for a second and call them “cultural insinuations,” delivered in the form of strings of associations of found and made language. In Hayes’ world, a personal story not only takes place within a larger cultural context—it’s pressurized, intensified, and made fluorescent by that context.

There’s nothing simple about this book, but it still manages to be immediate and intimate. You don’t get intimidated by the names and places you don’t know—you get curious. There’s someone talking to you in these pages, and that someone wants you to listen—in fact, needs you there to perform the task of the poem. Lighthead is (as one of its titles proclaims) “All the Way Live.” But “live” is different than “alive”: the poems get “lit up” and find their presence through performance, not the more sentimental delusions of earthly humanity. They’re, appropriately, full of singers: Marvin Gaye, the queer crooner Anthony of our present day, and then, in the final section of the book, almost like a joke, poetry’s first diva, Orpheus, makes an appearance.

The persona Lighthead begins the collection by addressing his version of the actual collective in the first poem, “Lightead’s Guide to the Galaxy”: “Ladies and gentlemen, ghosts and children of the state, / I am here because I could never get the hang of Time.” The problem that the speaker has, Time, might be the problem of living an individual life in time while also living out a cultural destiny. It also might just be the problem of being impatient in the mind while living a life in the body, and therefore, in time: it’s hard to quote effectively from these poems because the sentences are nothing short of headlong, rushing forward as if to beat the clock. The reference in the title of the first poem, “Lighthead’s Guide to the Galaxy,” is to one of the great classics of the alienated male teenager, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which was later made into a mediocre movie that generally disappointed the book’s cultish admirers. It’s my understanding that the book still provides a virtual support group (akin to video games) for alienated young people everywhere, but I think of it as being really male and really white (it was kind of mandatory high school reading where I grew up in the eighties and nineties, the Silicon Valley). I remember the main character, a human stuck in space, complaining that living in eternity would be bearable except for the Sunday afternoons. The trouble is, as Hayes recognizes, that mortality can feel like eternity even if we keep dying. Especially if we see how history keeps roughing us up again and again the same way. Hayes ends the poem as follows:

Maybe Art’s only purpose is to preserve the Self.
Sometimes I play a game in which my primitive craft fires
upon an alien ship whose intention is the destruction
of the earth. Other times I fall in love with a word
like somberness. Or moonlight juicing naked branches.
All species have a notion of emptiness, and yet
the flowers don’t quit opening. I am carrying the whimper
you can hear when the mouth is collapsed, the wisdom
of monkeys. Ask a glass of water why it pities
the rain. Ask the lunatic yard dog why it tolerates the leash.
Brothers and sisters, when you spend your nights
out on a limb, there’s a chance you’ll fall in your sleep.

Lighthead here offers us consolations for the difficulties of life lived “out on a limb”: how do you survive when you’re “carrying the whimper / you can hear when the mouth is collapsed?” His answer is a poet’s answer: you fall in love with a word, you create a myth of heroism, you keep singing. As he begins a wickedly titled sonnet later in the book (“God is An American”), “I still love words.”

Throughout Lighthead, Hayes’ intense, unpredictable voice pulls together qualities that may seem, at first, opposed. Throughout his career, he’s been a master of the poetics of the vernacular, bringing together blues rhythms, slang, riffs on song lyrics, and hip hop style. In his previous book, Wind in a Box, he writes, “Suppose you were nothing but a song // in a busted speaker?” That poem, a self portrait called “The Blue Terrance,” continues:

That’s why

the blues will never go out of fashion:
their half rotten aroma, their bloodshot octaves of
consequence; that’s why when they call, Boy, you’re in


Poetic form is nothing if not a way poets have of holding themselves to consequence. Poetic form is how poets revise fate into destiny. Lighthead is full of poems in traditional and self-made forms. They can even feel purposely overwrought. In an intricate ghazal, a Middle Eastern poetic form enslaved to the repetition of the final phrase of each couplet, he writes: “I lied, what about it? I loitered too. Like dust. / I did what you did like a no-good mirror, that’s what.” (“Ghazal-head”) In this and other poems, the reader witnesses Hayes merging his own cultural vernacular with a poetic form that already has a history. In a set of poems based on the pecha kucha, a Japanese business presentation format based on images, Hayes pairs resonant words with intense, self-contained cinquains that iterate through intense dramatic scenarios. In these, he reveals that he can write simply beautiful lyric lines, full of loss and the kind of intimate melancholy we read poetry to experience and to heal. I love this moment at the end of “Arbor for Butch,” a poem later in Lighthead, which feels like the contemporary speaking to the ancient:


Where there were too many trees and too many names
etched into the trunks; where the knots in the wood
were the scars of old limbs; where, to be reborn, the birch pine
must be set aflame; where the door if I opened it might have
revealed the lovemaking or abuse still waiting to be named.

Katie Peterson is the author of a book of poems, This One Tree (New Issues, 2006). She has received fellowships from the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, and the Foundation for Contemporary Arts. Her reviews have appeared in the Boston Review and the Chicago Tribune. She teaches literature at Bennington College. (Photo credit: Ariana Ervin)

Poetry Finalists that Year:

Poetry Judges that Year: Rae Armantrout, Cornelius Eady, Linda Gregerson,
Jeffrey McDaniel
, Brenda Shaughnessy

The Year in Literature:

Other Information:

Hayes receiving the 2010 National Book Award in Poetry

Hayes reading from Lighthead at the 2010 National Book Award Finalists Reading

Suggested Links:

Buy the Book:

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